So the last few days, I've been battling a mild (but persistent) bout of viral laryngitis. I only know because every summer for the last 3 years, I've had laryngitis while traveling abroad funny enough. 2010 in Asia, 2011 in Europe, and 2012 in the Middle East! It's like my body's own little summer tradition, I guess. I've met a LOT of sick travelers along the way, so at least I'm not alone.
Though I finally get time to update a little. Oman (pronounced oh-MAHN) has been a very interesting place! As a guy I met from Colorado put it, Oman is like the 'wild west' of the Middle East. It certainly used to be and there are forts just about everywhere (they say over a thousand)!
The border crossing was pretty intense, I must say. I took a 6-hour bus from Dubai and checkpoint after checkpoint, armed guys with drug-sniffing dogs prowled our luggage. Once I got into Oman though, it was a whole different story.
My first impression of the friendliness of Omani people was on the bus ride. An older Omani man (who spoke excellent English) guided me through all the checkpoints and made sure I got all the stamps I needed (since I had a different passport than everyone else, my process was a little different). He also translated for one of the officers who misread my passport. What a nice man, I thought.
When I arrived at night, I went into a small phone shop to ask for directions to a hotel I was looking at. The Indian-Omani shop owner's reaction? "Don't worry about it, I'll take you there."
And just like that he closed up his shop for the night and drove me to a hotel 5 kilometers away. Shocked as I was, I offered to pay, but he wouldn't take it. "Traveling should always be free," he smiled and said to me. Never have I experienced kindness like that from a total stranger.
Not exactly being a typical backpacker destination, Oman had no hostels to speak of, so I had to shell out a bit over my budget ($55 a night) for one of the cheapest hotels in town. Oman, by far, is one of the most expensive countries I have ever backpacked.
Public transportation was sparse so in my 3 days, I spent over $60 on taxis alone (with bargaining)!! Not to mention their currency is strong with 1 Omani Rial equaling roughly 3 dollars. A 'basic' 5 Rial taxi ride was costing me about 15 bucks!
However, my hotel room was amazing. Clean, spacious, with a modern bathroom.
Walking around Muscat, I felt like I was in some sort of Arabesque Disneyland. The streets are amazingly clean, yet the buildings are all Arabian with domed windows and whatnot. Not surprisingly, I was almost the only tourist everywhere I went, though the locals were - for the most part - incredibly hospitable. And very, very curious about where I was from.
Arab hospitality, as they say, is no joke. Drenched in sweat during the day, I had Omani men offer to buy me water, random drivers stop by the road to ask me if I was lost or needed help. One Omani man told me "with only 3 million people in Oman, every man must help each other."
Climbing old forts, walking around the 'corniche,' this was certainly off the beaten path backpacking...
Everywhere I turned, there was yet another fort in the distance. Historically speaking, Oman was a big trading power once upon a time between the Middle East, India, and China, so they had a lot to protect. Today, it's a peaceful, laid-back (and very developed) country. Most tourists head to the sandy beaches for a tan, but I spent my time walking the narrow streets of Muscat.
Sipping a cup of tea at a cafe along the bay one afternoon, I watched the world go by as local Omani men laughed, argued, and debated about things I couldn't understand.
Muscat is so small, I ran into two Italian guys three times around the sights of the city. And as with any ancient Arab country, there was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - the third largest mosque in the world.
At my hotel, I met two Americans studying in Jordan (after a 9 day dry spell) and they gave me some great advice about going to Egypt (which is pretty crazy at the moment, as you can imagine).
On my last night, I also met two awesome Omani guys (Mohamed and Mohannet) who took us out Omani-style. We went to the beach close to midnight and had some barbeque squid, shrimp, and beef, while conversing about the different ways of dating between Oman and back home. A pretty great way of topping off my last night in Muscat!
So while I did get a little sick and spend a bit over budget during my time in Oman, some great times were certainly had in the land of a thousand forts. Not to mention, I got to check off another ocean on my bucket list. I'm looking at you now, Arctic Ocean!
Now THIS is desert! On Friday, I took a desert safari where I learned to really appreciate technology. Outside of our comfortable air conditioned vehicle was a harsh, unforgiving environment. Without water nor trees, I couldn't believe this was a desert where people used to cross by camel for weeks to find the next oasis!
Since there's no triple A road assistance service in the Arabian Desert, we went in large groups of cars. Driving in one car would pretty much be suicidal - if your car breaks down, even if your phone works, there's no way to locate you.
I met two guys from Korea that night and we went out to smoke some shisha (hookah, nargile - whichever word you prefer) in the middle of the desert. No Middle East trip is complete without some hookah, I always say.
The next morning, I left Dubai and headed to my next destination: Al Ain - an oasis town on the UAE-Oman border.
Apparently, the way the weather works in the Middle East is completely opposite of the states. Al Ain - an inland city in the middle of the desert - was way cooler than scorching hot Dubai and Abu Dhabi by the coast. Well, cooler as in only-95-degrees-instead-of-110, but I was certainly happy. After a week in Dubai, 95 degree weather felt AMAZING.
Al Ain was (and still is) an old oasis where people used to fight over control of water. I walked through the big oasis where there were thousands of palm trees everywhere (the old indicator of fresh water nearby). I also tried dates - a palm tree fruit popular in the Middle East. So delicious!
I met a guy named André (on-DRAY) from Portugal, and we checked out Sheikh Zayed's old summer palace (which surprisingly wasn't that fancy for a palace) and the Al Jihali Fort - which was used to protect the oasis.
The most stereotypical Arab picture ever.
The fort was pretty cool and, as always, because it was so hot, we were literally the only two tourists there!
I also discovered my new favorite animal: Camels... I absolutely love them!
They always look like they're grinning! The locals tell me that camels are man's best friend here: they're loyal, dependable, and very friendly animals. They're basically the gentle horses of the Middle East.
We went to one of the last remaining camel souks in the world. It was very fascinating to see Emirati men come in trucks to bargain for a camel or two, the way you would go to a used car lot to buy a car. Apparently, camels also cost thousands of dollars!
André rented a car (why didn't I think of that?) so we drove to Jebel Hafeet at sunset - the second highest point in the UAE. And for the first time since the US, I felt temperatures in the 80s! It felt almost cold to me!
André said if I ever have time towards the end of my trip, he'd be happy to show me around Portugal and Spain. What a cool guy!
Oh and I rode a camel in the desert! I'm such a tourist.
You may have noticed more pictures in this update, thanks to this awesome (and normal-speed) wifi connection I have in Oman!
You may have also noticed two new tabs on the site: Videos and People I've Met. Videos take forever to upload, but I will be updating those both as I go along! Check them out!
How do I even begin to describe this magical city? I think I'll start with a few photos.
What is Dubai?
Is it a rich place? Is it an oppressed place? Is it just a bunch of buildings clumped together in the middle of the desert? Maybe.
To me, Dubai has been a crazy dream. A dream that started with a jolt but has since turned into an adventure.
The first day was crazy.
Picture a wet sauna, if you will. Now imagine going into one fully clothed, carrying a 10 pound backpack and a camera. This is how Dubai is in August.
I know I've mentioned the heat before, but this not your average hot-day-in-Texas, my friend. I'm talking about blistering, hard-to-breathe, mind-numbing heat. Heat so crippling to the senses that you forget to even drink water. All rational thought is blurred.
At first, I considered throwing in the towel (no pun intended) and reroute to Jordan - Ethiopia - anywhere else but here. But then I gathered my senses: If some of these ladies can do it fully-covered, how could I complain? I sucked it up and braved it Emirati-style. And you know what? It's not so hot anymore (okay it might still be a bit).
Dubai is like an alternate universe. One one hand, everything looks exactly the same. You have your teenagers that fill up at the movie theaters, your shopping moms that can't resist a sale, that one Cheesecake Factory that always has the long wait, and the husbands who sit impatiently inside clothing stores.
Yet somehow everything's in Arabic and the dress is a little different.
If there's one good thing about the heat though, it's that it scares away most tourists from the outdoor sights.
Wandering the streets and corridors of Old Dubai, I was often the only tourist among a sea of busy locals, peering into the lives of people who live so far away from what I call home. But this is their home.
But Dubai's not just the massive skyscrapers you see on The Travel Channel.
With some of the original 18th century city walls still intact, I fell in love with Old Dubai for what it showed: remnants of the quiet little fishing village and trading post Dubai once was. Before they found all that oil.
I also decided to make a day trip to Abu Dhabi to see what the fuss was all about. The Sheikh there decided to build himself one of the biggest mosques in the world.
As you can see, it was so hot it was virtually empty. I felt like the Sheikh himself. Of course, I'd be spending all my money building other things.
At my hostel, I made a few more friends - particularly Dirk from Germany, Ryoya from Japan, and Guillermo from Spain. We shared a lot of laughs and long conversations about how crazy different things were back 'home.'
That's the beauty of traveling alone. You open yourself to meeting so many different people that you learn from. People you wouldn't ever meet if you traveled in a group or with a tour.
Dirk and I did a little exploring through the old 'souks' (Arabic for market) and the upscale Jumeirah neighborhood, famous for one of its hotels in particular...
You can't exactly just visit the 'seven-star' Burj Al-Arab. You need to be a hotel guest (only $1,800/night!) or have a reservation at one of their fabulous restaurants in order to even go inside!
So I checked their menu. An appetizer? $150. Entree? $250-350. Caviar? $900. I think this was the lunch menu.
However, I did gain beach access to the hotel via dressing up and pretending to be a guest at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. That one's only $600 a night, I think. What a bargain!
Believe it or not, the water was hot! I'm not talking lukewarm, I mean hot water.
After the beach, I decided to splurge a little and do some skiing at the new SKI DUBAI in the Emirates Mall! Only 10 minutes from the beach.
If you ever ask a stranger to take your picture, there's about a 90% chance it will turn out like this.
I never thought I could be sweating my skin off at a beach one afternoon just to then freeze my ass off at the top of a ski lift an hour later! Only in Dubai. Those words ring true in so many senses.
On a random note, I saw a woman on the subway in a full-body burqa with an "Oi Oi Oi (Danza Kuduro)" ringtone. Good times.
As for today, I got frustrated with my tablet (wouldn't let me blog/upload videos), so I bit the bullet and bought a small computer; electronics are supposedly cheaper in Dubai, they say. At least it came with a nifty Arabic keyboard!
Dubai is truly one of the safest cities I've ever been in. Crime (even petty crime like stealing) is almost unheard of. I'd certainly have a higher chance of a heat stroke walking out late at night than running into any trouble.
So how do you put a city like this into words? You really can't.
5 days in and I have hung out with 11 people from 7 different countries. Thanks, Dubai, for some wonderful memories.
(See you soon, Oman!)
P.S. It took me 4 excruciating hours to upload these pictures on this sad internet connection. Thanks for reading!
(Pics to come later)
Ah... Dubai really felt like a journey. As usual, United played their dirty tricks, trying to tell me there were "no complimentary seats left" and that I'd have to pay $160 to "upgrade to an aisle or window seat." Instead, I went straight to the gate, asked for a window seat and got it immediately for free. It's a shame some people fall for it and actually pay extra for a seat they ALREADY PAID FOR.
Huge plane, 777, and I am (not surprisingly) the only Asian (well, East Asian) on board! I made friends with a flight attendant commuting to her shift in Moscow (what a commute!), an Indian guy on his way home from a job in the US, and a veteran going back to Afghanistan for an assignment. The veteran seemed more than happy to give me a mouthful of the colorful opinion he had of people living in "the sandbox." I guess not all of us are fond of other cultures...
When we were flying over Ukraine and Romania, there were endless tiny villages dotting the rolling hills. A nap and a half later, we were over Iraq and there was NOTHING BUT DESERT. No cute little small towns, no village roads. Nothing. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, but this was no ordinary drive-to-Vegas desert with mountains and all -- it was just sand. Pyramid-desert. How on earth did people survive there before technology came along?
It was 122 degrees Fahrenheit when I landed at 3 PM. To put it into perspective, Dubai in August feels like Las Vegas mixed with New Orleans humidity. It was so hot, my hand sanitizer container melted and it all leaked out. Yeah.
At my hostel, I met an Irish guy named Martin who arrived today after backpacking through India and Nepal for 2 months. Lots of interesting stories! We're gonna head off to the Burj Khalifa tomorrow (tallest building in the world) and the Mall of Emirates.
Apparently, electronics here are really cheap (I saw a brand new 35" LCD TV for $200 at a supermarket). Martin's planning on buying a Macbook here for about $1,100!
I still can't believe I'm in Dubai! Hasn't quite kicked in yet. It may be hot, but it's really cool just being here.
Yellow Fever vaccinated... check.
Typhoid vaccinated... check.
Malaria pills... check.
48 hours from now, I'll be on a 15 hour flight (yes, FIFTEEN!) to Dubai with nothing but a backpack, my Nikon, and an adventurous spirit. I guess I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous - but I'm hoping all that travel anxiety will subside once I land in that desert oasis. Looking forward to seeing some awesome stuff!!
I'm not sure how readily available internet will be. It's pretty hard to write from my tablet, but hopefully my trusty Nexus 7 will keep me grounded and reachable in the meantime (I may need to find a computer to actually blog though!)
I guess this is it... See you in December USA!